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Bob Loevy Thursday, January 26, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

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President Donald Trump pauses while speaking at a rally at Southern Illinois Airport in Murphysboro, Ill., on Oct. 27.

If Colorado and U.S. politics seem unusually divisive and fractious as the Nov. 6 election nears, political scientists have an explanation, and it’s all due to five words that start with “P.”

More Partisan: The two chief political parties have become very strong in defining their positions and enforcing them on their elected officials. Party-line voting now is widely practiced by Congress and the Legislature. Partisanship is so strong, it is said to be diminishing even social interactions between Democratic and Republican elected officials.

More Philosophical: The parties are more ideological and less practical. The Republicans have become committed to ideas of the religious right, such as opposing abortion and limiting the rights of gays and lesbians. Republicans also are ever more strongly opposed to government being used to solve major issues, such as education and medical care. Democrats, by contrast, advocate expensive government proposals such as free tuition to community colleges and free medical care for all, as well as heavy spending to rebuild highways and construct high-speed passenger rail between cities.

More Polarized: As the two sides become more philosophically divided, they are less able to compromise. Each tends to sit in its own corner and stand pat on beliefs and programs. That’s supported by super-partisan political commentators who draw audiences by taking extreme rather than moderate positions. Polarization is also aided by plurality primary elections, where many candidates run but only one is nominated. This tempts candidates to run at the extreme, rather than in the middle, in hopes of being “the first of many” to win party nominations. Runoff elections between the top two finishers, not used in partisan primary elections in Colorado, would reduce some of this polarization.

More Politicized: In today’s highly charged atmosphere, minor and major issues and events are politicized in hopes of giving one party or the other an advantage.

More Paralysis: The result of the first four “p” words is paralysis. When parties are sharply divided on the major issues, they can’t act together to accomplish common purposes. The two parties balance each other, and often little is achieved other than uneasy maintenance of the status quo.

This has been particularly true in Colorado in recent years. Despite a constitutional mandate to spend big dollars on kindergarten through high school education, Democrats and Republicans year after year fail to agree how to come up with adequate funds. They also have failed to agree on a plan for regulating water in this semi-arid state. The most conspicuous paralysis has been over Colorado’s roads and bridges, which keep deteriorating while the parties argue about funding.

That’s why interest groups turn to ballot questions initiated by voter signatures. It’s why education and transportation are on the Nov. 6 ballot.

So accept that you live in a time of high political competition and partisan bitterness. The phenomenon has been well-documented by political scientists and their five “P” words.

Bob Loevy is a political scientist at Colorado College.

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